Analogue and Digital Music; The Audio Illusion

There is one fact that we can extract from the continuing discussions concerning the pros and cons of digital and analogue music and that is that they are perceptively different for a lot of people. But why is this and why are some more receptive to the difference than others? Well I have a theory that I would like to share and that, to my mind, explains many of the conundrums raised by the ongoing arguments.

Psychology suggests that our brains are continually trying to make sense of new sensory input in terms of the model of,’our reality’ that our brains have developed from all of our previous sensory experiences. This view is no better illustrated than by optical illusions, where what we see does not quite fit with our prior model of reality. This causes us to continually analyse the situation and flip between the contradictory perceptions that the particular illusion conjure up, ‘is it a cat or a duck’, ‘that staircase can’t go there in three dimensional space but it is’ and such like. Like a computer caught in a loop we continually try to make sense of what we see before by continually scanning characteristics of the image to try to make sense of the whole and we find this activity both interesting and stimulating.

Prior to the last decade or so the source of virtually every sound we heard in our daily lives was analogue. Also the transmission and reception of sound within our ears is analogue. So those of us who have spent most of our lives in the fully analogue world have a strong view in our heads that the characteristics of analogue sound are what help define the landscape of, ‘our reality’. Consequently when we hear fully analogue music it is perceived as real and natural and our brain has little work to do in accepting it allowing us to focus on the content of the music in a more relaxed and emotional way. However when we hear fairly high quality digital music the subtle differences in its sound and musical signature cause it to be precepted as an, ‘audio illusion’; we know that it sounds good but there is just something that doesn’t make it fit with, ‘our reality’. We still recognise it as wonderful music but our brains go into overdrive flitting from one aspect of the music to the next trying to reconcile what we are perceiving with our analogue reality. This results in a perception of digital music having greater detail or clarity and having a more distinct soundscape.

Personally I find listening to my £25,000 CD system a heady and dramatic experience, but over the many years of listening I have become aware that my mind is less calm and my attention moves to different strands in the musical mix and it don’t feel that these change in focus are conscious decisions.

With my turntable the music sounds less intense but has a wholeness that calms my mind and allows the music to flow over me and it becomes a conscious choice whether I turn my attention to any particular strand of the mix. Now I’m not putting digital music down because I love it, but it elicits a different listening experience to analogue.

This isn’t only about digital sources. In my experience the other equipment in the chain will obviously change the source signal and can bring the perceived sound closer to ones own envelope of reality and most of us have experienced this. For example my Chord Blue, Dac64 combo sounds wonderfully analogue through my Messe classic 99 headphones and in my mind makes the music both more relaxing and ‘real’ than when played through my Grado R1 headphones, that sustain the excitement and drama of an illusionary soundscape.

An interesting observation that can be explained by this theory is that, to my senses low quality digital is much easier to listen to than high quality sources and I believe this is because the brain does not detect an illusion. In the case of low quality digital the brain identifies it as ‘not real’ and so accepts it more easily and consequently there is no additional processing caused by the brains confusion. Low quality digital is easy to listen to but if suffers from physical lack of musical information and so although it is easy to listen to, it is also bland and lacks musicality.

I would also suggest that audiophiles listen more intently and hence have a more finely tuned ‘musical reality’. Therefore we can detect the ‘illusion’ with higher quality digital replay, whereas those with a less defined musical reality find it easier to accept digital music as within their own reality and hence see less of a distinction between digital and analogue.

To test this theory out I have recently spent short periods of time looking at optical illusions and it seems to me that I have the same sort of response to optical illusions as I do to listening to digital music. Firstly I can’t stop looking at them and trying to make sense of it all and it is an extremely stimulating experience and very different to looking at, say a wonderful piece of art, which is a far more relaxing but as enjoyable an experience in a more esthetic way. I also find that with illusions my mind flits from one part of the illusion to another and that my mind is working more intently to understand what I am seeing, whereas with a wonderful painting or photograph I feel as though I am focusing less on the detail but taking in the entirety. To me this is similar difference when listening to good quality digital and analogue music. Neither is better than the other but they are different for the reasons I have suggested.

An interesting point is that this may also explain the resurgence in vinyl. Over the last decade or so more of the daily sounds that we hear originate from a digital source like, phones, DAPs, TV, laptops etc. It may be that the tables have turned for the younger generations and that their, internal ‘sonic reality’ includes digital sounds. To younger generations it is analogue music that is the, ‘audio illusion’, and just like me with digital music they are captivated by analogue. I think this is a good argument to have both digital and analogue in your world. Enjoy!

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